During a speech to a Chamber of Commerce crowd, Mitt Romney made the following statement:
“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.'”
The comment sparked immediate attacks from both Republicans and Democrats. For example, Jon Huntsman said “Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs.” Newt Gingrich defended Romney while simultaneously benefiting from a SuperPAC ad casting Romney as a corporate raider.
Romney’s people are trying to point out that his comment was directed at changing insurance companies. Romney Communications Director Gail Gitcho said that, “our opponents are taking Gov. Romney’s comments completely out of context.”
Political comments are often taken out of context, but this episode brings the question of context in political attacks into sharp relief. Attacks that take comments out of context can be disingenuous, unfair attempts to skew the political process through fraud. However, such attacks can also speak to a substantive nugget of truth.
Context is a powerful concept, providing meaning to a concept that may not be evident from the concept alone. This opens the door for terms and items to have clearly different meanings in different contexts, but it also opens the door for concepts to have unintended meanings based upon context or even the lack of context. For example, the surrealist works of Rene Magritte used everyday items out of context. But this contrast between the image and the words pulls the pipe out of context and forces you to think about how the forced context of the words “this is a pipe” create a meaning for an object that could be anything outside of that context. As Magritte said of his work that the titles “merely illuminate a number of characteristics of the objects involved, characteristics that are generally ignored by the consciousness.” (Magritte 1979).
It is certainly true that Romney was talking about his belief that individual ownership of insurance will create incentives for insurance companies to better serve their customers. But Romney’s unconscious motivations may be seen in divorcing the statement from that context. Romney could have said, “I believe in giving people choice in the marketplace,” but instead he opted to say that he enjoyed firing people who provide services to him. It is technically an out of context attack, but might it be fair as casting a light upon a revealing comment abut Romney’s true character? Huntsman’s attack in particular seems attuned to this idea — according to Huntsman, Romney’s impulse when looking at the economy is cost cutting and downsizing as opposed to the classic GOP focus on job creation.
Then again, to paraphrase Freud: Sometimes a cigar is just a multi-millionaire corporate raider hopelessly detached from the reality of the American people.